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Friday, October 12, 2007

Real Wow customer service, or not

Image from the blog Customers Rock!

Great customer service is trendy. Fred Reichheld's The Ultimate Question drives this point home -- with an argument that for most enterprise, the key indication of great service is whether your clients will promote your business -- that is, eagerly recommend friends and clients to work with you. Conversely, he says the opposite reaction -- hostile negative reporting from "Detractors" -- can hurt your company immensely.
Some of his favorite examples are in the airline and car rental industries. He cites especially the success of Enterprise and Southwest, compared to the major traditional airline carriers and brand name rental companies.
Yesterday, I flew out to my meeting on WestJet (the closest Canadian equivalent to Southwest), picked up my rental car from Enterprise, and returned on Air Canada.
Did I choose one airline or rental car company over another because of their "wow" customer service? Nah. Fraid to say this, but it was price (virtually) all the way.
Nevertheless, I hadn't flown on WestJet for some time so wanted to see if they really offered exceptional customer service. The plane was clean, and the flight attendant helped me put my heavy bag in the overhead bin. Nice, but I was flying for the $59 fare.
At Toronto, the Enterprise shuttle arrived quickly to pick me up, and an enthusiastic rental clerk greeted me. Another employee offered me a bottle of water (nice touch) and the agent took me into the car area set up something like a showroom, to give me a choice of vehicles. (Nice, as well.) She even got me to pay a little more for a slightly larger car with cruise control. (Thoughtful touch). But my 'love affair' ended when she tried to push the overpriced collision damage waiver stuff on me -- and it truly is overpriced; she said the cost is $20 for the day.
Trouble is, I chose Enterprise because of the $18 daily rental price -- sure beat $59 or $69 with the other guys. And I remembered my last visit to Enterprise, when an overzealous return clerk noticed a little ding on the car and said I would have to pay. I said "no way", then called American Express, got the claim number for my credit card CWD coverage, and resolved to always use Amex to pay my Enterprise bills.
Returning home, I chose Air Canada partly because of equivalently low fares, but also because of the fact I like to be a 'somebody' and use the airline lounge (something not offered by WestJet). And how do I get into the lounge with a super-cheap ticket? -- yes, my Amex card, again.
Hmm, yes, Reichheld cites Amex as a business with great client service, but again the story here isn't so simple. Yes, I recover easily Amex's platinum card fee with additional insurances and coverages -- and they treated me properly when I was granted flight delay insurance coverage when I complained they were being unreasonable in denying it to me -- but who is really paying for all these benefits? Of course, the grumbling merchants, who need to pay Amex a higher than fair discount rate -- because Amex is giving me and other clients goodies that make it worthwhile for us to use the Amex card where possible. Kind of a cost/benefit shifting exercise.
Maybe I'm not a typical customer, but I see some real problems with the efforts to systematically organize client satisfaction. Sure, I'll use Enterprise, Air Canada, Westjet, and Amex again. None of them have screwed things up too badly, and I am reasonably confident they will deliver fair value and service. But I sense the best customer service is understated; and you know is sincere and not structured or planned -- at least not obviously. And, while I appreciate good service, price really counts a lot -- either with a low cash cost, or (using Amex) shifting costs onto merchants in exchange for benefits I can use.

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